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Market Trends Influence Medical Metal Selection

Market Trends Influence Medical Metal Selection
Daniel Grace
Because of the stringent requirements associated with the industry, several proven metals and alloys have enjoyed a long and healthy relationship with the medical device manufacturing sector. However, market trends are beginning to reshape OEMs’ expectations and forcing them to plan differently. Climbing price points have prompted some OEMs to investigate alternative materials. Moreover, speedy availability of tried-and-true titanium could be waning, thus increasing lead times.

Platinum is a popular material among medical device manufacturers owing to its strength, biocompatibility, and corrosion resistance. But the cost of receiving those benefits has grown steeper in recent years as a result of a worldwide spike in the market value of platinum. In light of customer concern over escalating platinum prices, some materials providers are looking to offer cost-effective substitutes.

“We are noticing an interest by an increasing number of our customers in palladium as an alternative to platinum,” says Dave Vincent, director of business development at Johnson Matthey (West Chester, PA; www.jmmedical.com), a supplier of metals and alloys and a metallurgical developer. “Palladium shares many of the same physical traits [as platinum], but the rise in its cost hasn’t been nearly so dramatic.”

Both platinum and palladium are classified as platinum group metals, but platinum is approximately four times as expensive on today’s market. Platinum is also four times as expensive as it was at the beginning of the decade—the approximate time when the price began a steady climb that has continued to the present.

Palladium is much less dense than platinum, and long-time platinum users are still learning about the best methods for incorporating it into existing applications. Because of its relative unfamiliarity, it has mainly been used, so far, to replace platinum in nonimplantable devices where concerns about in vivo performance don’t apply.

“You will hear manufacturers talk about adopting palladium for its specific characteristics,” Vincent comments. “But at this point, it really boils down to cost.”

Unlike palladium, the status of titanium as an implantable-grade material is well established. Like precious metals, however, its availability is not immune to global market forces. Due to current trends, medical OEMs may need to prepare for longer lead times for titanium parts in the near future, says Craig Schank, director of sales and marketing at Supra Alloys (Camarillo, CA; www.supraalloys.com), a supplier of titanium alloys.

“After 9/11, the aerospace industry was anticipating higher prices, so companies ordered huge stocks of titanium,” Schank explains. “In fact, they overstocked, and for the past few years they’ve been working through existing supply. Indirectly, this benefited the medical industry which enjoyed shorter lead times.”

Although titanium is widely used among medical OEMs, the overall amount consumed pales in comparison to the aerospace industry. In the past few years, medical companies have been able to send jobs to mills unburdened by the large demands of the aerospace industry. But this may change soon, Schank says.

“The aerospace industry is beginning to work through its overstock and we’re seeing a rise in activity in that industry,” he says. “There are no guarantees, but it…could affect the lead-times that the medical industry has grown accustomed to.”

Copyright ©2008 Medical Product Manufacturing News
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